News & Views

Statement of Concern: Police use of projectile weapons

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) expresses concern regarding use of projectile weapons at Melbourne protest on 21 August 2021.

Pepper ball rounds were confirmed to have been used by Victoria Police during the “anti-lock down protest”[1] at various locations in Melbourne’s central business district on the afternoon of Saturday, 21 August, 2021.

Photo and video evidence indicate that the weapon used was most likely the VKS Pepper Ball firearm (or similar) that Victoria Police bought as part of the Victorian State Government’s 2016 Public Safety Package (see our Victoria Police Weapons ID Guide).  These semi-automatic rifles can fire capsicum rounds, blunt force pellets the size of marbles, or dye markers that “brand people for arrest later.”

Video evidence also indicates the use of baton round Launchers being fired in the area around Queen Victoria Market during the protest event.[2] These weapons can fire different types of kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) including rubber or plastic bullets. MALS has not yet ascertained what ammunition was used in these incidents.

These pellets, and other types of KIPs, are incredibly dangerous and can blind, maim and leave permanent injuries depending on where they hit the body.[3] A demonstration video is available here. The inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse, and the significant associated injuries of these types of weaponry make them inappropriate for use in public order policing and crowd control settings.

Using, drawing or threatening use of any weapon is considered a ‘use of force’ for which a police officer is both legally and organisationally accountable. MALS was not present at this event and cannot comment on the specific context of each use of force incident. However, we wish to emphasise that the use of force options available to Victoria Police are to be used solely in cases of imminent threat.

Victorian police officers do not have unrestrained power to use weapons or any other force on members of the public. Any use of force must be reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to the threat faced and in accordance with legal requirements found in legislation,[4] the common law, and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic).

The emergency pandemic powers do not provide the police any greater powers to disperse crowds with ‘non-lethal options’. Police are given powers to fine, to declare an area an ’emergency area’, and to require people to move on, but emergency powers do not provide for greater use of force.

In particular, the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic) (PHWA) is underpinned by the “principle of proportionality”,[5] which provides that decisions and actions should be proportionate to the risk, and should not be arbitrary.[6] The actions of persons engaged in the administration of the PHWA (such as Victoria Police), are lawfully obliged to ensure that they exercise their powers in a transparent, systematic, and appropriate manner, so far as is practicable.[7]

Melbourne Activist Legal Support has tracked the rise in coercive and excessive crowd control tactics by Victoria Police over several years at protest events throughout Victoria. We condemn the normalisation of harmful “non-lethal” weapon use by Victoria Police and the growing arsenal they have at their disposal. The increased use of weaponry as a crowd control mechanism sets a dangerous precedent and risks their use normalised in protest contexts.


As previously stated, MALS does not support actions, rhetoric or causes that are designed to undermine public health restrictions or deliberately appropriates and co-opts the language and issues of structurally oppressed groups. (see where we stand on anti-lockdown protests).


This Statement of Concern is a public document and is provided to media, Victoria Police Professional Standards Command (PSC), Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), Government ministers, Members of Parliament and other agencies upon request.

A downloadable copy of this Statement (PDF) is available here.

For inquiries regarding this statement please contact: [email protected].

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS)

is an independent volunteer group of lawyers, human rights advocates, law students, and para-legals. MALS trains and fields Legal Observer Teams at protest events, monitors and reports on policing at activist events, provides training and advice to activist groups on legal support structures, and develops and distributes legal resources for positive social movements. MALS works in conjunction with law firms, community legal centres, and a range of local, national and international human rights agencies. We stand up for civil & political rights.
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Footnotes

  1. Rachael_Dexter (Twitter, 21 August 2021, 5:21pm) citing statement from Victoria Police.
  2. BOX4 Media Video Footage, Facebook.
  3. Chauvin A et al (2019) ‘Ocular injuries caused by less-lethal weapons in France’ Lancet 394; Lartizien R et al. (2019) ’Yellow vests protests: facial injuries from rubber bullets’, Lancet 394; Lavy T & Asleh SA’ (2003) Ocular rubber bullet injuries’ Eye (Lond) 17; Cohen MA (1985) ‘Plastic bullet injuries of the face and jaws, S Afr Med J. 68; Mahajna A et al. (2002) ‘Blunt and penetrating injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in October, 2000: a retrospective study’, Lancet 359; Haar RJ et al. (2017) ‘Death, injury and disability from kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings: a systematic review’ BMJ Open.
  4. Subsections 322K and 462A Crimes Act 1958 (Vic).
  5. Section 9 Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic).
  6. De Vietri R & Gerry F, ‘A Quick Reference Guide for Criminal Lawyers in Victoria during the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Bourke Criminal Law News Victoria, April 2020, 14.
  7. Section 8(1) Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic).